Baloch Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Energy Resources: The Changing Context of Separatism in Pakistan
Authored by Dr. Robert J. Wirsing. | April 2008
This monograph examines the Baloch separatist insurgency that has resurfaced in recent years in Pakistan?s sprawling Balochistan province. The author maintains that the context of today?s insurgency differs in certain important respects from that of its 1970s predecessor. Most fundamental of these differences are those stemming from energy resource developments in what some are calling the ?Asian Middle East? (embracing parts of South, Central, and Southwest Asia). In particular, the monograph looks at how Pakistan?s mounting energy insecurity ? a product of rapid increase in demand coupled with rising scarcity and the region?s intensified energy rivalry? has magnified the economic and strategic importance of Balochistan, while at the same time complicating Pakistan?s efforts to cope with the province?s resurgent tribal separatism.
This change in the energy context exerts a powerful threefold impact on the insurgents? prospects. In the first place, it lifts Balochistan and Baloch nationalism to a position much higher on the scale of central government priorities, thus seeming to warrant, as the government sees the problem, zero tolerance and ruthless crushing of the insurgency. Second, it arms the Baloch insurgents both with greater incentives than ever for reclaiming control of Balochistan and with the novel capacity to drive the economic and political costs to the government of continuing insurgent activity far higher than ever in the past. Third (and on a more hopeful note), by promising to turn Balochistan into an important corridor for energy trafficking in the region, the changed context creates major opportunities for addressing Baloch nationalist demands in a positive and peaceful manner. While conceding that the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the government thus far has a conspicuously dark side, the author insists that Balochistan?s rapidly changing energy context could supply both the means and the incentives for bringing the insurgency to a swift, negotiated, and amicable end.
It is recognized that getting the Pakistan government to reverse course in Balochistan?and to engage the Baloch nationalists politically instead of only militarily?will no be easy. It is not just that a presumed force-reliant military ?mindset? will get in the way; the problem of resolving Balochistan?s political fortunes is much more complicated than that.
Today a formidable array of energy-related and other strategic forces impinge on that part of the world. As in the 1970s, Balochistan still falls in the shadow of strife-torn Afghanistan, which confronts Islamabad with an endless source of policy dilemmas. However, innumerable other shadows, equally problematic and all with their own set of imperatives, have now been added. The monograph highlights the manner, in particular, in which Pakistan?s energy imperatives crowd in upon its policymaking in regard to the circumstances in Balochistan. These imperatives include not only its own natural gas resources, but also the proposed import of natural gas from Iran and/ or Turkmenistan and its all-important collaboration with China in the laying of groundwork for a north-south commercial and energy corridor. It seems highly unlikely that these imperatives will grow any less pressing as time goes on. As a consequence, persuading the government to give significantly higher priority to accommodation of the Baloch tribal minority will unquestionably be a hard sell.
In Afghanistan?s Shadow, a book published in 1981 by well-known author Selig S. Harrison, examined that era?s threat of Soviet expansionism in the light of Baloch nationalism. It was in Balochistan,1 the vast and sparsely populated province in southwestern Pakistan, that the Pakistan army had ruthlessly suppressed a tribal separatist insurgency in the course of the 1970s. Rebellious Balochistan lay between Afghanistan and the sea. Since Soviet forces had militarily occupied Afghanistan in late 1979, the possibility had naturally arisen that Soviet leaders might be tempted to real- ize the long-cherished Russian goal of securing a warm- water port by exploiting lingering separatist grievances in neighboring Pakistan. ?A glance at the map,? Harrison wrote at the outset of his book, ?quickly explains why strategically located Balochistan and the five million Baloch tribesmen who live there could easily become the focal point of superpower conflict.?2
Over a quarter-century has passed since Harrison made that observation. Baloch nationalism is again on the rise, and Balochistan is again the scene of violent encounters between Baloch militants and Pakistani security forces. Not surprisingly, in comparing today?s insurgency3 with its 1970s forerunner, we find numerous continuities. Conspicuous among them are the government?s persistent refusal to concede any legitimacy to Baloch nationalism or to engage the Baloch nationalists in serious political negotiations. These refusals run in company with its parallel tendency to secure its aims in Balochistan mainly by military means.
No less evident, however, are the discontinuities between the earlier and current episodes of Baloch insurgency. These discontinuities have arisen because the context of today?s conflict in both its external and internal domains has in the meantime undergone some obvious transformation. The Soviet Union is no more. Shrunken Russia?s historical quest for a warm-water port now seems barely conceivable and is rarely discussed. American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces have taken the place of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and today the Afghan enemies of these Western forces, in more than a few instances, are drawn from the ranks of what were at one time their staunch anti-Soviet allies. In the 1970s, Pakistan was just recovering from a disastrous military defeat suffered at the hands of India. It today manages to sustain a comprehensive dialogue with India aimed ostensibly at permanent peace and resting on a surprisingly successful ceasefire in Kashmir that marked its fourth anniversary near the end of 2007. The 1970s episode of Baloch insurgency featured the elected civilian-led government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as the militants? principal antagonist. In the current round of fighting, the Baloch nationalists are squared off against the army-dominated government of President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999.4 The cast of characters in today?s confrontation thus has clearly undergone major modification and role reversal, and the political and strategic motivations currently driving actions in the region are not simply copies of what they were in the earlier period. It is this change in the context of Baloch separatist nationalism that is examined in this monograph.
One of the most remarkable changes pertinent to today?s conflict, and the particular focus of this monograph, has taken place in its energy context. Put simply, assured access to hydrocarbon or other energy resources, including both oil and natural gas, has in recent decades assumed a far greater importance than hitherto as a driver of Pakistan?s security policy, both domestic and external. This is to say that energy security in Pakistan, as in most other countries in its neighborhood, now stands at or near the top of national priorities.5
A sizable hint of energy?s gathering importance to the conflict in Balochstan was, of course, already apparent decades ago in the pages of Harrison?s book. ?If it were not for the strategic location of Baluchistan and the rich potential of oil, uranium, and other resources,? he observed, ?it would be difficult to imagine anyone fighting over this bleak, desolate, and forbidding land.?6 But what was then a mere hint has taken on Him- alayan proportions, exerting weight both in government and among the separatists that is often decisive.
With the gradual mounting of tensions between Baloch nationalists and the central government in the last 5 years have come frequent acts of anti-state violence, a substantial portion of them directed against the province?s energy infrastructure and personnel. Pakistan?s energy resources are thus tangibly implicated in the insurgency. Considered more closely, they have a direct and important relationship to Baloch nationalism in at least three ways. One is that Balochistan itself? the largest, least populated, and least developed of Pakistan?s four provinces?is rich in energy resources.
Among the many grievances expressed by the Baloch nationalists, the most persistent and long-standing has been that these resources, including coal as well as gas, have been exploited by the central government without adequate compensation to the province.
A second way is that Balochistan is a transit site for major proposed natural gas pipelines that would carry gas from either Iran or Turkmenistan to Pakistan and from there potentially to India. One of many obstacles to the implementation of these pipeline projects has been the threat of Baloch militant attacks to disrupt gas supplies.
A third way in which energy resources have a direct and important relationship to Baloch nationalism is that Balochistan is the site of a major port facility and energy hub currently under development at Gwadar on the province?s coast (see Map 1). Gwadar is the terminus of a projected interstate transport corridor that is to link Pakistan by road, rail, air, and, to some extent, pipeline with both China?s Xinjiang province and, via Afghanistan, with the energy-rich Central Asian Republics (CARs). Baloch nationalists have complained that the government is developing the port and corridor without consultation with, involvement of, or benefit to the Baloch. The anger of Baloch nationalists has sometimes been directed against China, whose investment in the Gwadar project and in other Balochistan-based ventures has been substantial. A number of Chinese nationals have been the target of five violent attacks in Pakistan in recent years, with three of these attacks taking place in Balochistan, two of which resulted in fatalities.7 Moreover, the additional fact that the port is being constructed to serve Pakistan?s huge ambition to become a major energy resource and commercial trade intermediary on the Arabian Sea lends this grievance especial geo-strategic salience.
Obviously, the changed energy context exerts a strong influence on the tactical ebb and flow of the insurgent-counterinsurgent dynamic. But beyond this, the argument is made in this monograph that the changed energy context also exerts a powerful threefold impact on Baloch nationalism itself. First, it vastly increases the importance of Balochistan and Baloch nationalism to the central government. This increased importance is evident in the compounding pressures on government to bring the insurgency to a swift and definitive closure, the reinforcement of government?s deep-seated intolerance of insurgent demands, and the growing temptation to settle the matter with brute force. Second, the changed energy context simultaneously arms the Baloch insurgents with greater incentives than ever for reclaiming control of Balochistan and, even more important, with the capacity to drive the economic and political costs of the government?s counterinsurgency effort far higher than ever in the past. Third, to both sides? advantage, the changed energy context, which includes the potential for major increases in Pakistan?s revenues and dramatic improvements in Balochistan?s economy and social infrastructure, also supplies novel and abundant opportunities to address Baloch nationalist demands in a positive and mutually acceptable manner. Thus, while the insurgency unquestionably has its dark sides, its rapidly expanding energy context may supply the means to bring the insurgency to a negotiated and amicable end.
This monograph begins with a closer look at the energy-insurgency nexus.
To conclude, the context of today?s Baloch separatist-motivated insurgency differs in important respects from that of its 1970s predecessor, most fundamentally in terms of energy resource developments in what some are calling the ?Asian Middle East? (embracing parts of South, Central, and Southwest Asia).This change in the energy context exerts a powerful threefold impact on the insurgents? prospects?first, by lifting Balochistan and Baloch nationalism to a point much higher on the scale of central government priorities, warranting, as the government sees the problem, zero tolerance and a crushing response; second, by arming the Baloch insurgents both with greater incentives for reclaiming control of Balochistan and with the capacity to drive up the economic and political costs to the government of continuing insurgent activity; and third (on a more hopeful note), by creating major opportunities?specifically, by turning Balochistan into an important energy conduit in the region?to address Baloch nationalist demands in a positive and mutually acceptable manner. Despite the ruthlessness of the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the government thus far, Balochistan?s rapidly intensifying energy context could supply both the means and the incentives for bringing the insurgency to a swift, negotiated, and amicable end.
Persuading the Pakistan government to reverse course in Balochistan and engage the Baloch nationalists politically and with a far more measured and judicious resort to the military option, will not be easy. The problem is not the alleged military ?mindset.? The problem is rather more complicated. The energy-related and other strategic forces impacting on that part of the world join together in shaping Pakistani perceptions of their policy requirements, in some instances narrowing options, in others practically dictating Islamabad?s actions. Unfortunately, as Justin Dunne has perceptively observed, these forces ?have demanded that the central government more strongly exert its authority in Baluchistan.?74
As in the 1970s, Balochistan still stands in the sha- dow of Afghanistan, a source of endless policy dilemmas for Islamabad; but innumerable other shadows, equally darkening and each with its own set of imperatives, have emerged. Pakistan?s energy imperatives relate not only to its own natural gas resources but also to the proposed importation of natural gas from Iran and/or Turkmenistan, as well as to its all-important collaboration with China in ground working a north-south commercial and energy corridor. All these factors crowd in upon Pakistan?s policymaking in regard to the circumstances in Balochistan. Particularly, every effort must be made to ensure that no more Chinese engineers are slain anywhere in Balochistan.75 It seems highly unlikely that these imperatives will grow any less pressing as time goes on. Giving significantly higher priority to the accommodation of the Baloch tribal minority, in the face of these imperatives, will be a hard sell.
However, Islamabad must come to realize that accommodating the Baloch nationalists makes far better sense than either neglecting or exterminating them. After all, energy rivalry is not the only factor affecting the context of the Baloch insurgency. Contemporary insurgency more generally, as Steven Metz persuasively argues, is undergoing fundamental change in its strategic context, structure, and dynamics, so that it bears less and less resemblance to its forebears. This metamorphosis, he says, mandates that governments adopt ?a very different way of thinking about (and undertaking) counterinsurgency.? The real threat posed by insurgency, he observes, is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict. Political destabilization and a host of other damaging pathologies may be the consequence of attempts to destroy insurgents. ?Protracted conflict,? he declares, ?not insurgent victory, is the threat.?76
Thus Pakistan?s leaders, along with the leaders of states supporting Pakistan, should undertake on an urgent basis a reexamination of their policies so as to avoid if possible protracted conflict in Balochistan. The best overall way to do this is to make the Baloch partners to energy development, not antagonists of it.
1. The tribe and province are commonly spelled either as Baluch and Baluchistan or Baloch and Balochistan. The latter spelling seems currently to be winning out in writings on the subject and thus has been adopted here.
2. Selig S. Harrison, In the Shadow of Afghanistan: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1981, p. 1.
3. Words themselves are, of course, weapons in the discourse of political conflict. Hence, the word ?insurgency? is used with care here to mean a serious level of organized, widespread, and persistent anti-state violence without implying that the current separatist rebellion in Balochistan has reached the level attained by its 1970s forerunner, or that it has necessarily outstripped the government?s capacity to contain it. The current rebellion certainly qualifies at a minimum as a ?low-intensity insurgency.?
4. Ending an 8-year reign as military ruler and a 46-year military career, Musharraf stepped down as chief of the Pakistan army and took the oath as civilian president in late 2007.
5.Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, an engineer by training, observed in a speech on energy security in 2005 that ?energy independence has to be our nation?s first and highest priority.? Quoted in ?India?s President Seeks Energy Security,? Tech Policy, August 17, 2005, available at www.techpolicy.typepad. com/tpp/2005/08/indias_presiden_1.html,accessed September 9, 2007.
6.Harrison, p. 7. Emphasis added.
7. B. Raman, ?Security of Chinese Nationals in Pakistan,? International Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 266, South Asia Analysis Group Paper No. 2329, August 11, 2007, available at www.saag. org/papers24/paper2329.html,accessed August 13, 2007.
74 Dunne, p. 68.
75. A number of major recent initiatives by the Pakistan government to protect Chinese nationals in Pakistan are outlined in Raman, ?Security of Chinese Nationals in Pakistan.?
76. Steven Metz, Rethinking Insurgency, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2007, pp. v-vi, available at www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.milSeptember 24, 2007.,accessed on